Virginia Beach, by nature and necessity, is one of those places that welcomes any reason for a celebration. This year, for frequent visitors who might think they’ve seen it all, there’s a new party in town – the 50th birthday celebration of Virginia Beach.
History might quibble with the holiday, as Virginia Beach actually became an independent city in 1952. The boardwalk was first constructed in 1888. (Related: 5 things to know when you visit Virginia Beach )
Fifty years ago, however, the two-square-mile resort city merged with the larger and more rural Princess Anne County. And that, boys and girls, leads us to this summer’s ubiquitous motto, “50 Years of Living the Life in Virginia Beach.”
By happy coincidence, it’s also the 50th anniversary of the first apparent published use of the word “Beatlemania.” Yes, party time again in Virginia Beach. Local concert promoters decided to marry Beatlemania and Beach-mania, and came up with an August event at the city’s Sandler Center. The WannaBeatles tribute band will perform with Symphonicity – the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach -- at a concert called “1963 Was Only Yesterday.”
In other words, visitors this summer won’t be able to open the minivan door without hitting something with “50” on it— the 50th anniversary flags lining the city’s main streets, 50th anniversary T-shirts for sale in the souvenir shops, the 50th anniversary beach light show.
There’s even a special 50th anniversary popcorn at beach icon Jody’s Gourmet Popcorn store.
Beach promoters also are distributing a “Fifty Days of Fun” calendar that lists special anniversary events.
For a city whose economy depends greatly on tourism, finding a way each and every summer to bring tourists back to Virginia Beach – and stand out among other mid-East Coast beaches – can be a challenge.
Bobby Melotti, vice president for business development at the entertainment company Integrated Management Group, compares it to a jewelry store: Rearrange the jewels in the display case every so often so customers see them in a different way.
“You take these things and couch them to fit the format,” said Melotti, a Virginia Beach school board member who’s lived at the Virginia Beach oceanfront for 40 years.
To that end, longtime beach performers The Tidewater Winds will perform a new musical score written by local composer James Hosay called “Arise Atlantis” on July 17, said Enrique Ortiz, programs and entertainment director for Virginia Beach Events Unlimited and the Neptune Festival.
His events company has produced a “50 Ways to Live the Life” list for tourists and locals to take advantage of special promotions. On that list is No. 33, the Boardwalk Art Show – which, by the way, is officially 50-plus-8 years old and is listed among the country’s Top 50 fine art shows.
This year, the show features a record 280 artists and a new Father’s Day Tea Dance under a 60-foot tent on the Oceanfront at 31st Street. The idea was borrowed from a traditional event once held at the historic Cavalier Beach Club, said Dot Greene-Provencher of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA sponsors the four-day Boardwalk Art Show, which begins June 13.
One of the artists who’s come back to Virginia Beach for more than a dozen years – like many tourists – is Trista Chapman. Chapman, a Fredericksburg potter who usually can be found at Washington-area art shows from Reston to Bethesda, looks at the Boardwalk Art Show as “a mini-vacation.”
“I have a lot of fun,” Chapman said. “There’s a very loyal crowd of people from all over the country. And it seems like people there appreciate modern art more than some other shows I do.”
Before opening her booth, Chapman begins her day by running on the quiet Boardwalk at 7 a.m., and then has breakfast at Little Feet’s Café on Atlantic Avenue, the oceanfront’s main drag, at 26th Street. “There’s the same waitress who’s been there forever, and she remembers me every year,” Chapman said.
The boardwalk artists also traditionally meet for a seafood dinner on the art show’s opening night at Harpoon Larry’s near 24th Street and Pacific Avenue, and meet up another night at Chapman’s favorite Beach restaurant, Tautog’s, at 23rd Street and Atlantic Avenue. “It’s always crowded, but we’ll wait,” she said.
The row of art booths and food trucks this year will be joined by a huge tent housing Cirquesa Dreamquest, another celebration of the city’s 50th anniversary. The Cirque du Soleil-type production will be staged in a tent near Rudy Loop at 3rd Street and Atlantic Avenue, and will run several times a week through September.
While promoters and city officials would prefer to discuss the special events and celebrations, they’ve had to address an inauspicious start to the Virginia Beach 50th tourist season. A late-April event called College Beach Weekend 2013 tested the city’s readiness for rowdy crowds; a half-dozen shootings and stabbings were reported and 148 people were arrested throughout the weekend.
Ortiz and others have acknowledged that city and tourism officials weren’t prepared for the event, and that its promotion was handled poorly. “It was like having a party in someone else’s house and they didn’t get permission,” said Ortiz. “It was a one-time deal and it won’t be repeated.”
Police and Virginia Beach tourism leaders met with residents in May to talk about the tumultuous weekend and review plans to handle similar events in the future. Ginny Zapar Cohen, a Virginia Beach blogger who’s lived near the Boardwalk for 16 years with her family, said she’s confident that lessons were learned.
“I know it got out of control, but that was a lack of preparation on everyone’s part. Hopefully they’ll be more vigilant next time,” said Cohen. “I’ve lived here a long time and I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the Boardwalk.”
As she does each summer, Cohen will welcome friends and family who come to visit her in Virginia Beach and will offer her standard list of tourist suggestions – plus 50th anniversary events including Cirquesa.
She said she often recommends that tourists visit bakeries and brunch spots for a taste of local life: The Belvedere hotel coffee shop at 36th Street, brunch at Citrus on Great Neck Road, and the Leaping Lizard and Cafe, also on Shore Drive, “where you can also dine outside as their chickens are milling around.”
Cohen also recommends nearby First Landing State Park for swimming and water sports, picnics and overnight beach camping. “My kids call it ‘Little Hawaii’ because it’s so pristine,” Cohen said.
Another favorite non-Oceanfront spot is Linkhorn Bay “where you can see the homes of Virginia Beach,” Cohen said. “There’s where you can see how Virginia Beach residents really live.”
For more information about this summer’s events in Virginia Beach, go to: